Italy's prime minister is embroiled in political and personal scandals
By David Willey
BBC News, Italy
The reign of Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is facing deep personal and political problems, has left a sour taste in the mouths of Italians plagued by economic problems, natural disasters, cultural destruction and his sex scandals.
The telltale signs of the end of a regime are here for all to see.
Fifteen million working-age Italians inactive - neither in employment nor actually seeking work.
A stagnant economy where productivity is in decline.
A government that seems incapable of responding in an orderly manner to either natural or man-made calamities.
In the south, thousands of tonnes of stinking rubbish continue to fill the streets of Naples and Palermo, despite unkept promises of new incinerators and new landfills.
In the north, this month's disastrous floods, whose seriousness was underestimated for several days, swept away the homes and livelihoods of thousands of citizens of Vicenza.
Then Italy has a minister of culture, who also happens to be Silvio Berlusconi's chief propagandist, who refuses to resign when, amid the remains of ancient Pompeii, the House of the Gladiators collapses in to a pile of rubble.
It was not my fault, he said. The minister may now be forced to step down however, as he faces a censure motion in parliament.
Police grumble about being ordered to escort young women guests to and from lively parties at the prime minister's luxury residences in Milan and on the island of Sardinia.
One editorial writer drew a comparison with the Roman emperor Tiberius, who retired in his 70s to a palace on the island of Capri.
There, according to the historian Suetonius, Tiberius appointed a minister of pleasure to devise erotic entertainments to stimulate his declining libido.
Rubbish littering the streets of Naples has not been removed for months
"Suetonius may be amusing to read," the editorialist wrote, "but actually living through this is becoming unpleasant."
And this is what Italians I know and meet every day are complaining about, in the cafe, at the supermarket, at the chemist's shop, on the train.
Besides complaining, they are also asking: "Now what?"
The foreign press has been quick to call this the beginning of the end for Mr Berlusconi.
And he himself, for the first time, is showing signs of being worried. The latest opinion polls show his approval rating has dropped to between 35% and 40%.
When he was elected in a landslide vote two years ago his popularity stood at more than 60%.
Mr Berlusconi still continues to attract many Italians who admire his financial success and remarkable business and political acumen.
In public, at least, Mr Berlusconi remains his usual "cheekie chappie" self, boasting that he will easily gather enough support to win next month's confidence vote, despite the defection from his coalition of Gianfranco Fini.
The Italian premier is himself increasingly becoming the butt of popular fun
Mr Fini is the reformed post-Fascist speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and one of the co-founders of Mr Berlusconi's Freedom Party.
He still has ambitions to become Italy's next prime minister, but it is doubtful whether he has either the time or the financial resources to mount a successful election campaign to challenge Mr Berlusconi if, as now seems likely, the country goes to the polls again next spring two years ahead of time.
Mr Berlusconi has long been famous for his usually off-colour, sometimes crude, and always politically incorrect jokes with which he likes to regale his listeners both in private and in public. His jests build political consensus and are themselves the subject of academic study.
Now, however, the Italian premier is himself increasingly becoming the butt of popular fun.
Italy's most famous and popular jokester, the comedian and actor Roberto Benigni, poked fun at at him on television recently when he mocked Mr Berlusconi for claiming that the mafia has been putting around false stories about his sex life.
"You mean," said Benigni to a record national TV audience, "that the Mafia have laid down their shotguns and Kalashnikovs and are using girls instead?
His penchant for pretty young women may well have scuppered his chances of achieving his ultimate ambition
"So when you go home and you find three pretty women in your bed, you tell yourself: 'Oh oh, the Mafia are after me!'"
More seriously, the sexual shenanigans involving Mr Berlusconi in 2010 may have had a more devastating effect than he had bargained for.
His penchant for pretty young women may well have scuppered his chances of achieving his ultimate ambition of becoming Italy's next figurehead president when the mandate of the present head of state, the dignified Giorgio Napolitano, comes to an end in 2013.
It is 50 years since Federico Fellini's film masterpiece La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) celebrated Italy's post-war dream society. Anything seemed possible in a country emerging from a devastating war.
Mr Berlusconi, through his TV empire, has created a brash new consumer culture, not very dolce, which offers little hope of a new Italian dream.
Italy's economic future remains uncertain, and the romantic ruins of its past glories could well continue to turn to rubble.
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